FORT GARLAND — The Spring Fire added another 10,000 acres Sunday, while firefighters finally achieved some hard-fought containment by nightfall.
The 58,868-acre fire is now 10percent contained, but fueled by high temperatures and fast-moving winds, feeding on piñon, juniper, sage, Gambel Oak, Ponderosa Pine and mixed conifer.
Jesper Joergensen, a 52-year-old immigrant from Denmark is accused of starting the Spring Creek Fire, the most active among multiple blazes that are causing damage to that state.
Joergenson told investigators he was cooking meat in a fire pit when nearby bushes caught fire.
Authorities will be letting people know on Tuesday the condition of their homes and if it has been affected by the fire. They haven’t been able to get into the area yet to get a look around because the fire has been so dangerous.
A total of 480 firefighters are responding to the blaze and the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Type 2 Blue Team joined fire fighting efforts Sunday, tackling the northern end of the fire while Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team Black coordinates efforts on the fire’s southern end.
The National Guard arrived Sunday to aid in fire fighting work and other activities.
Since it began Wednesday evening about five miles east of Fort Garland, the fire has exponentially grown each day, jumping from 4,000 acres Thursday to 24,000 acres Friday and continuing to spread through the weekend toward Cuchara and La Veta.
Mandatory evacuations remained in place Sunday for large portions of Costilla and Huerfano counties, including Forbes Park and Wagon Creek Estates in Costilla County and Tres Valles, Paradise Acres, Raspberry Mountain, Pine Haven, and the Cuchara Valley in Huerfano County.
Joergensen wrote repeatedly about anarchy on social media, is accused of starting the Spring Creek Fire, writes on Facebook that he was in the Danish National guard, was an English/Danish correspondent and is a member of Mensa: "I suffered a major back injury in 1997 and following clinical negligence. This forced me to leave my country of origin, Denmark, and I now live like a refugee..."
Because he’s not a citizen, Joergenson will be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the arson case concludes, according to Costilla County Undersheriff Ricky Rodriguez.
Asked whether Joergensen is in the country illegally, ICE spokespersons responded with this statement, “On June 28, 2018, deportation officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed an immigration detainer in Costilla County Jail, following his arrest on criminal charges.”
It was later revealed that he was illegally here, since his visa had expired.
According to ICE, Joergensen is a “deportable alien.” The U.S. government defines a deportable alien, however, as “An alien in and admitted to the United States subject to any grounds of removal specified in the Immigration and Nationality Act. This includes any alien illegally in the United States, regardless of whether the alien entered the country by fraud or misrepresentation or entered legally but subsequently violated the terms of his or her non-immigrant classification or status.”
Incident Commander Shane Greer said drones fly at the same elevation as the helicopters and other aircraft that are fighting the fire, and if they come in contact with a drone, they could crash, so if drones are flying in an area, the firefighting aircraft will be grounded for safety.
No timetable for return
Officials said there is no time table on when people will be able to return home, as conditions can be unpredictable at times.
A pre-evacuation notice was issued for Huerfano County residents around 9:45 p.m. Saturday night. This includes Red Wing, Chama, Malachite and the town of Gardner, also including the Badito area on the south side of Highway 69.
Mandatory evacuations were also issued for Trinchera, this is for the area north and east of Trinchera Ranch Road, and south of Highway 160 in the Ft. Garland area. Evacuees are told to go to the Blanca/Ft. Garland Community Center, as power was shut off in that area.
Sunday, crews are continuing to perform point in the northeast and in the Tres Valles area, protecting structures wherever safely possible. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the fire has closed US 160, between Fort Garland and La Veta (mile marker 258 to 293) and CO 12, between La Veta and Cuchara Pass (mile marker 7 to 22.5).
As of Sunday, 593 homes in Costilla County have been evacuated and 1,483 homes were evacuated in Huerfano County.
Some structures were lost in the fire, according to the Costilla County Sheriff’s Office, but it’s unclear exactly how many. More than 2,000 homes have been evacuated.
The Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Team Black has assumed command of the blaze - Team Blue joined them Monday to take command the fire north of Highway 160 while Team Black remains in control of the southern portion of the blaze.
Crews are looking for further suppression and burnout opportunities on the east side to keep the fire west of La Veta, and aerial retardant will be used on the east side of the fire. The southeast side of the Spring Fire has the roughest terrain, with significant amounts of dead, standing beetle kill. Crews here are looking for opportunities to create fuel breaks and perform potential firing operations.
The south side of the fire had significant fire activity yesterday; the fire has established itself in the Indian Creek drainage and has moved south of the 421 road. Firefighters are constructing dozer line around the subdivisions on the south side and will begin mitigating around structures. Large columns of smoke will continue to be visible in both the south and the north today.
Highway 160 remains closed with no estimated time of reopening. Highway 12 is also closed in the Cuchara Valley due to mandatory evacuations.
As a disaster declaration was provided by Governor Hickenlooper, more resources are now available for the firefight. The Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Blue Team will be assisting the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team Black on the blaze. The Blue team will manage the north end of the fire, which will be able to reveal the complexity of the fire.
A concentrated air attack was underway Monday with air tankers and helicopters being used to cool the fire's edge and slow growth, mostly on the east side, which is a few miles from La Veta.
Other highlights of the Saturday briefing included:
• County staff are currently working on assessing structures lost in the fire and are developing a process for informing homeowners. Once the status of a house is known, there will be a face-to-face meeting with the homeowners. Behavioral health staff will be available, and are available at the evacuation center, for residents who need them.
• A disaster assistance center will be set up, hopefully by Monday, and will be a “one-stop shop” to assist residents with their re-entry needs.
•There is room for evacuees at the evacuation center at the community center, Red Cross Disaster Program Manager Bill Werner stressed. “We will accommodate you…we will find room for you.” Evacuees will be taken care with shelter, food and other needs, he stressed. Red Cross will also help with items like eyeglasses and other needs, Werner said.
•The fire is still moving, and shifting winds have been causing difficulties with containment. The fire did cross Highway 160 in a couple of places, and the highway remains closed. The fire is still listed as five percent contained, and Greer said it may be months before the Spring Creek Fire is completely controlled.